Philosophers as Shamans

This is the first of several short pieces on the relation between shamans and philosophers. Each piece deals with an aspect of the theme of how faith—healers differ from philosophers, how metaphysical thoughts may influence how we perceive our world — that is, what we actually claim to have seen, whether through rational persuasion by others — by changing the framework of perception and coincidentally changing our sense of personal well—being and of the body itself. Shamans — male and female — are precursors of priests and organized religion, but more often are viewed opponents than friends.

How to distinguish Philosophers from Shamans

This strange and challenging title joins two groups: philosophers and shamans. In the popular mind these seem to have very little in common.

wittgensteinBoth can be soothsayers, but philosophers traditionally deal in wisdom whereas shamans with well-being, the esoteric, the health of body and mind. The general view is — I think — that philosophers are educated, wise, cool in judgement, perhaps a little eccentric and monistic, inclined to press and urge their “take on things”, are often anti-establishmentarians because they challenge some features of what is perceived by others as common-sense. After all, the ordinary person does not walk around and claim that “time is not real” as some philosophers have done, or suggest that all things are made from the same unseeable substance, from atoms, which by definition cannot be “sensed”. These views varies from what is normally accepted. Philosophers however have negotiated with others a license to raise issues about obvious matters and issues and are often permitted by their fellow citizens to utter the unutterable, and speak whereof the ordinary person must remain silent. This is generally speaking a benevolent view of philosophers : it views them as gadflies, but not as vicious rampaging mosquitoes.

Lest we forget, most societies in the past have not been tolerant towards philosophers, but have been more hospitable to shamans and faith-healers. Their claims seem to much more plausible. Shamans are more rare in moderns society than they once were. One see an occasional sign on the window of a private home advertising their services. We may also hear about them in Anthropology 101, a subject fewer students study now than in my day — relatively speaking — but the term may also occur en passant in Sociology 101, a subject which attracts an increasing number of students in colleges and universities.

But shamans, as I will argue, are the original or ur-physicians, and emerged as a force within tribal societies before medicine was hijacked as a “profession” and became increasingly devoted to “physical medicine” and less and less with the spiritual well-being of individuals.

The shaman in early society was a standard figure in larger human groups and his/her role was to achieve relief from pain and discomfort for others by their specialized knowledge of “nature”, plants, animals and what we would call “natural resources”, and also by their presumed access to the world of spirits, either benevolent spirits, indifferent spirits or evil ones, that is, demonic and covetous, spirits.

Like humans, spirits responded to others, could be helpful or mischievous, even downright evil. They have to be contacted and approached before one could negotiated, even master, them. This was the unique job of the shaman, a job perhaps inherited from the father or mother and required a life-style different from those of tribal confreres. Indeed, in many early societies the role of supreme ruler (king) and shaman were combined — a potentially hazardous combination because when kings fail they face revolt and execution. Kings accepted their responsibilities for the future of their “tribe”; shamans do not.

Generally speaking, shamans also do not guarantee success in restoring the health and comfort to their “patients”. They could not be sued for malpractice! Failure of their mission could be attributed to extenuating circumstances, never to the shaman as an inadequate practitioner of their esoteric art. One price paid for this exemption of responsibility was that they were often viewed as outsiders and some modern commentators have suggested that shamans had symptoms of schizophrenia, which could easily isolate them from the rest of their tribal fellows.

I do not want to give the impression that there is a smooth continuity between the shamans of old, as they operated within early societies — in some cases many thousands years ago — and contemporary medical practitioners in countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany or Scandinavia who have their roots in a series of critical developments during the 19th century, in the work of Semmelweis, Pasteur, Charcot and Freud, Lister, Ehrlich — and in retrospect above all in Darwin and modern genetics, those medical practitioners who focussed on the role of biological mechanisms which underly life itself. Far from it. But this applies equally to other disciplines, especially to physics which underwent several “scientific revolutions” (in Kuhn’s (1962) sense) during the 20th century and who are almost as far away from the speculations of Democritus (400 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 330 BCE) as the shamans (c. 10,000-5000 BCE) are from moderns physical medicine and psychiatry. Continuity is not linearity and does not imply a smooth uninterrupted development from early roots to the present, but refers to similarity of problems, not of solutions.

Thus, people have become speechless since we first adopted speech as our primary method of communication, but our understanding of what produces periods of speechlessness in our lives has radically changed as a results of systematic research done on this problem over the last 100 years.

Shamans assumed that our states of awareness (consciousness) reflected something about the natural order of the world they lived in: that spiritswere “of the essence” of things and that material bodies were “abstractions” in the sense that a “mountain” — or a “tree” — were manifestations or representations of a reality greater, or above, what was physically experienced. It is a view which is still with us — and which underlies much of what goes under the name of “philosophical idealism”.

What shamans in general assumed was that ubiquitous spirits, which were part of everything perceived, could be influenced even controlled by “special methods” which were unique to them. These methods included secret concoctions and brews as well as idiosyncratic methods of solicitations (like incantations and gestures, including dances). I am reminded of scientists in the mid-20th century who claimed that the true path to Truth is via method — itself a half-truth.

The shaman furthermore believed — as did their followers — that practices of divination not only propitiated spirits, but were instrumental in healing others through the mediation of other, to most people alien but powerful spirits. Healing for purpose of our discussion is viewed as “restoration” of spirit, for even boils and bodily wounds were often viewed as manifestations of spiritual. In general, it means that without a universal belief in different levels of reality — and a firm conviction that the world of spirits is primary — neither shamanism or religion would take root: chimpanzees, our close biological kin, are not known to divide their experiential world into a spiritual and a physical realm. It is a human proclivity to assume this.

We do know this: that our earliest text about what humans believed about their world, as recounted in Hesiod’s (c.650 BC) Theogony — only 300 years ago — reveals that our ancestors viewed their world as inhabited by gods which were not different in most respects to themselves, except that these were more powerful, more corrupt, more vengeful and conniving than we allow ourselves to be.

Our ancestors faced two sets of issues: unwellness due to spirits and un-wellness due to physical injury. The former could be “cured” by spiritual means, the latter could be alleviated. A woman bitten by a poisonous snake may be helped by ointments made from special (secret) plants, but a man in violent and uncontrollable temper or mood — overcome, as we say, by emotions — could more likely be helped by spiritual methods (although smoking pot or certain libations and brews, may also alleviate his distress). An arm lost to a lion could not be restored, but the suffering which follows could be abated by appropriate spiritual intervention.

Spiritual intervention means healing an afflicted person by restoring their sense of wholeness and well-being. Struck by lameness, loss of hearing, inability to balance when walking, loss of speech are all examples of such afflictions — and are prototypical of ailments from which a person can recover and have been known to recover fully or in part. Each of these functions can be restored through the help of a third party: the faith-healer, the miracle worker, perhaps with the help of a friendly exorcist, or the support by your social worker or spiritual advisor-priest.

All these “moderns” — whether dressed in white lab coats or in ceremonial and religious garments — fulfill the role and functions of earlier shamans. They often mediate the “cures” promised, whether for long periods or only temporarily — and they always have explanations why in some (many?) cases the treatment was “only temporary” or on occasions even unsuccessful. Not all the lame at a revivalist meeting raise themselves and walk as their preacher exhorts them to when they cry “Heal in the name of xxxx”!! Some do — and persuade the rest of their large fellow brethren, of the efficacy of the divinely inspired message of the preacher.

All treatments discussed above require an intermediary — a male or female “shaman”. All require that the afflicted person or persons believes in the efficacy of the treatment. Both parties to the cure share a theory to explain to themselves and to others why the treatment should work — and why it often does not. I shall address this problem in a follow up blog but remind the reader to keep in mind than a prothesis is not a shamanic device.

Tail-note: Philosophers — but also modern psychologists — have a special interest in the “nature of belief” but the former try to remove themselves as far possible from acts which can be construed as therapeutic in intent. Wittgenstein was not a therapist. Do they succeed? Only partially — which is one of the reasons for writing this and future blogs. Philosophers often behave as if they have a therapeutic objective, as if by rewriting one’s script one can also re-structure one’s life. Perhaps there is some truth in this.